Uncontacted Tribes in the Amazon: Isolated by Choice

February 5, 2013 11:16 am Last Updated: October 1, 2015 11:14 am
An aerial view of members of an isolated tribe in the Amazon rainforest living along the Peru-Brazil border, taken in 2011. (© Gleison Miranda/FUNAI/Survival/UncontacTedtribes.org/BrazilPhotos)

ITATIBA, Brazil—The startling images of an uncontacted Brazilian tribe taken from a plane a few years ago had many people captivated. 

Some were stunned to learn that while NASA is sending probes to different planets in search of life, there are still small human groups on our own Earth that remain in complete isolation from the rest of the world. 

Isolated tribes today reside on different continents including Asia, Oceania, and South America in the densely forested areas. 

According to Glenn Shepard, an anthropologist at the Goeldi Museum in Belém, Brazil, most isolated groups in the Amazon rainforest live along the border areas between Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and Colombia.

It is difficult to know the exact way of life of these tribes as they avoid contact with the outside world, although some studies can be done by following their traces in the forest. 

Isolation to Escape Massacre

Shepard, who has worked with different indigenous tribes in Peru, Brazil, and Mexico for 25 years, says most uncontacted groups choose to stay in isolation as they escaped the wide-scale massacre of the rubber boom in the Amazon at the turn of the century. 

“The inhuman working conditions and cruel punishments of native laborers by rubber tappers in the Putomayo region between Peru and Colombia was denounced to the U.S. Congress and the British government in 1913,” Shepard says. 

A great number of indigenous people perished as a result of these conditions, and many others became assimilated to local groups. Some, however, decided to isolate themselves from the outside, explains Shepard. 

“Some of these remain isolated to this day.”

Policy Change

Early, in the process of colonization, the indigenous policy of the Brazilian government was to attract and contact indigenous people and have them integrated into society. But, according to Brazil’s government-run National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the result observed with time was that such policies led to the death and sub-par life conditions for the natives. 

After the 1980s’ constitution, the Brazilian indigenous policy transitioned from a notion of integration to one of recognizing the customs, languages, beliefs, and rights to the lands of the indigenous peoples.

“The policy adopted for the isolated people changed from a forced-contact form to one promoting and protecting their rights,” says a representative with FUNAI. 

“This means that the desire of these people to remain isolated should be respected more, and the state must provide the conditions for this to occur.”

Today, FUNAI monitors the territory of isolated tribes to keep away any encroaching. 

“There are 32 confirmed uncontacted Indian tribes, and others are still under study. A large amount of information has already been collected from each group, and their territories are monitored continually and left uninterrupted,” says the FUNAI representative. 

Deadly Encounter

The tribes today are left uncontacted since close encounters could expose their members to contamination by infectious diseases, as many tragic encounters resulting in high fatality of tribe members in the past have proved. 

The likelihood of violent confrontation of the tribes’ people who see outsiders encroaching on their land is another reason to avoid contact. 

Shepard, who writes and creates documentary films about peoples of South America, had a close call himself with the isolated nomadic group of Mashco-Piro. The tribe killed one of his native friends who thought he was helping them toward contact, but apparently frightened them.

The Mashco-Piro people, explains Shepard, isolated themselves and abandoned agriculture after they were massacred by rubber trappers. 

“It is important to realize that respecting their [uncontacted tribes’] isolation is tantamount to respecting their right to survival,” Shepard says. 

“Some tourists have a fascination to see primitive indigenous people, naked and ‘pure,’ like in some kind of Jurassic Park. What some don’t realize is that they only want to be left alone, and not respecting that decision can be very dangerous,” he said.